Ok, let’s get to the next chapter.
Two vans did not seem enough, to Jo’s mind. Not for the task that lay ahead. A half-dozen people, and all their equipment, would completely fill the first. The second was mostly empty, to transport the objective, as Jervis had taken to call it. It seemed like a caper of this magnitude would require more. But then, how much help would more people be? Her crew on Pericles only numbered over a dozen because of the various crewmembers’ children, and they had charge of the starliner for an entire year.
Not the same thing.
But it was not that dissimilar, in principle. A group of people working as a team to accomplish a goal. If the team became too large, the group dynamic could break down as dissent and social loafing interfered with operations. Jo understood that, but it was easier to accept in the familiar environs of a starliner than here, well past the line of criminal behavior.
Jo shoved the doubt aside. It just came from her own nervousness, a natural reaction to a wholly new set of circumstances. It was not an easy thing to do. She watched as Jervis’ men loaded the last of their equipment into the vans. As they slammed the tailgates shut, she found herself swallowing despite the fact that her throat was dry. She felt like a new hire, just getting underway for the first time. Or at least, she felt how she imagined they would feel, how they had described it to her. Having grown up on the starliners, she never got to experience that apprehension, not in the same way they did.
“Nervous?” Isaac’s tone was wry, but beneath that concerned, the way an older captain might feel for a pilot standing her first qualified watch on the bridge without an instructor to keep an eye on her.
Jo smiled slightly at that tone and looked back at him. He stood in the doorway leading from the CFL headquarters’ loading garage into the building proper, and was dressed simply, in a white collared shirt and khakis. He seemed particularly partial to that combination. He met her gaze and smiled ever so slightly as she shrugged. “I’d be lying if I said no,” Jo replied.
Isaac nodded. “Good. Means you’re not nuts.” He walked forward to her side, on a small concrete landing above a small flight of stairs that led down into the garage proper, where the two vans were parked. “Though some here would probably disagree with that assessment.”
“I might just agree with them.”
Isaac snorted. Or maybe he chuckled. Or maybe both. His lips turned upward more broadly as he patted her on the shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “The plan’s good,” he said. “Simple, straightforward. Nothing fancy to screw up, and you’ll have our best people with you. You’ll be fine.”
Jo returned the smile, but shrugged. “We’ll see.”
Isaac was right: it was a straightforward plan. As far as Jo could see, the greatest risk ran in the rendezvous with Carl. The closest civilian airfield to Camp Tycho was only a couple hours’ drive away, just outside Alice Springs. But that would be too obvious a place to go, so they had selected a field to the north, near Darwin. It was a long drive, though. The map predicted about eighteen hours. A lot could happen in that time; there were plenty of ways for the NSA to find them, and once they did…
Jo suppressed a shudder. That did not bear thinking on. What would be, would be, and she needed to focus on doing whatever she could to make sure the mission turned out well, not poorly.
She turned her eyes back to the floor of the garage, where her team, dressed casually in clothes that would not garner any attention between here and Camp Tycho, was forming up. Jervis stood to the side, along with Shani; they would not be going along, of course. He had higher-level responsibilities to deal with and Shani…well, she was not cut out for field work, that had become clear very quickly. For organization and planning though, she was a whiz.
To Jervis’ right was a slight woman with greying hair and amber-brown eyes named Courtney who, so the others in Brisbane said, could crack any safe or cypher known to man. Jörgen, tall, blond and ugly, with a face like a cinder block and a body to match, knew about computers and security systems. Thomas and Grant were brothers. They were both young and muscular, and had they look of military men; it helped that they bore a number of weapons visibly, and likely many others that she could not see. From the word around headquarters, they were very good in a fight.
And then there was Malcolm. And her.
Jo felt decidedly out of place and inadequate, right then. That was a feeling she knew well; it was an old companion, often encountered but rarely journeyed with for long. She had encountered it as that scared young newly-qualified pilot who took watch alone for the first time; when she had conned the ship into port the first time, even under that Captain’s watchful eye; when she had taken command and every member of her new crew eyed her with uncertainty as they made their first assessments of her qualifications and quality.
She had proven equal, more than equal, to every one of those situations, but knowing that did not make the anxiety go away. It never did, not until it decided to leave of its own will, not hers. But while it decided when exactly to do that, she had work to do.
Jo cleared her throat and raised her voice. “Are we ready?” Silent nods from her team and a quick smile, somewhat forced she noticed, from Malcolm, who stood apart from the others a small distance, were the only response. Jo inhaled and paused, collecting her thoughts. This was one of those times when the leader is supposed to make an inspirational speech. She had never been good at those.
“We’ve got a tough job,” she said, “one that I never thought I would be involved in. If you’d asked me six months ago, I was going to remain on Earth for another couple years, treading water until my ship got out of the yards and I could go home again.” That evoked some strange looks from the assembled people, planetbound all. Few of them could understand how a ship was a crew’s, and especially her Captain’s, true home no matter where they came from or how long they might stop planetside from time to time. “I never wanted anything else than to travel the stars, see what is out there. I certainly never thought I would give it all up to get into politics planetside.”
A smattering of chuckles answered her. Courtney wore an open grin of amusement; the two brothers matching smirks. At least they had some sense of humor. That would be helpful.
Jo paused again, a sudden upwelling of emotion forcing her to get control. She had never said it straight out like that – she would never again be Captain. At least, not on a ship she did not steal. It was one thing to know it; it was something else entirely to admit it aloud, to others. She surprised herself in the depth of loss that the telling drew out from within her. So much for being at peace with it.
Jo sniffed and forced a half-smile onto her face. “But there are some things you can’t turn away from. Some things that make it impossible to just go along, safe in your own little world. Or at least there are for me. What’s happening in that lab is wrong, more wrong than anything I’ve ever heard of before. Our first encounter with intelligent aliens, and we treat their children like…” She paused, suddenly finding herself out of words. The silence lingered for a long several seconds, then she drew herself up and made her face hard, taking on her best ‘Captain Means Business’ expression. “It has to stop, and we have to stop it.”
She was surprised by the applause as she walked down the stairs to her waiting team. Not just from them, but from everyone present: the men who had manhandled their heaviest gear into the truck, Jervis, Isaac, the pair of mechanics who had just finished giving the vans a final once-over, a few interested CFL members who had come just to see them off. Everyone clapped for her little speech as though it had been the most inspirational thing ever.
Even Malcolm was clapping. He wore a broad, proud grin as she stepped off the final stair. “Great speech,” he said quietly as he fell in alongside her.
Jo snorted, but she could not help but smile. The anxiety was gone, eclipsed by a warm glow of satisfaction.
It was time to get underway.
* * * * *
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